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August 23, 2020

Freedom’s enforced disappearance


August 23, 2020

Let me acknowledge it at the outset. I find it difficult to sort out my thoughts that have been prompted by the demise of Senator Mir Hasil Bizenjo on Thursday.

It would be easy, though, to replicate the tributes that have been paid to his political integrity and his commitment to democratic values. Some fine speeches were made in the Senate on Friday. His death was also termed as a national tragedy. Everyone agreed that he was a fine man.

But his non-violent struggle for rights and justice was centred on the troubled province of Balochistan – and that remains an uncharted territory in the media. In addition, there is this important question: what is the role of a politician of Hasil Bizenjo’s credentials and character in the existing environment? And what would a system be like when it does not accept a Hasil Bizenjo?

It should be possible to recount that dramatic moment in our legislative history when Hasil Bizenjo lost his election for the chairmanship of the Senate on the first of August last year. The entire episode was an allegory on the nature and the quality of our democracy. It bore some marks of a Greek tragedy. I will come to it in a little while.

Yes, I had known Hasil Bizenjo personally, too. Some years ago, we would frequently meet in sessions sponsored by Pildat – our foremost think tank on democratic and legislative issues. There were relaxed interactions on the sidelines, including in Quetta. Having studied at the University of Karachi during the eighties, he had many close friends in the media who had also participated in progressive student politics.

The point is that I always saw him as one of us, as a social activist and a defender of human rights. He was the interpreter of Balochistan and had a great understanding of the power politics of the country. Since I had, as a young journalist met and interviewed his illustrious father, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, I could detect the same qualities of humility and patience in Hasil Bizenjo.

Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo was a great negotiator and was known as ‘baba-e-mazakrat’. He was a leading politician of his time and was very active during that momentous period between 1969 and 1971. He became governor of Balochistan but resigned in 1973 when the NAP government was sacked. He spent long stretches of time in prison because of his politics.

Again, I am not going into his biographical details. Our history is replete with instances of persecution of politicians who struggled for the democratic rights of the people. I have had opportunities to explore the situation in Balochistan as a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s fact-finding missions, led by the late Asma Jahangir. Somehow, the HRCP reports do not prick the conscience of the mainstream parties or the powers that be.

Take the example of this photograph that was in circulation on social media when the news of Hasil Bizenjo’s death became known. You may have read the news and possibly seen the photograph of the aged parents of Hayat Baloch, a student at the University of Karachi, wailing over his bullet-riddled body on a dusty street in Turbat, Balochistan.

Details have been reported about how Hayat, who was harvesting dates in a farm, was dragged by FC personnel and shot multiple times. He was left on the road to die in the presence of his parents. Irrespective of how the FC has responded to this crime – and it is a positive initiative – the incident and its photographic depiction have not created an upheaval. For our society and also the administration, this is business as usual.

So much else that would be expected to shatter the equanimity of a civilised community is hardly able to cause a ripple in our society. Like this photograph of the poor, aged parents wailing over the dead body of their son. I can cite many examples of similar incidents activating major changes. So, why are we so apathetic? Has our lack of freedom weakened our capacity to protest, to rise against injustice?

And now, to conclude, let me return to that incredible betrayal of democratic principles, with Hasil Bizenjo as the aggrieved party. Just over a year ago, a motion of no confidence was presented in the Senate against its chairman, Sadiq Sanjrani. Opposition’s candidate was Hasil Bizenjo.

It would logically depend on the party position. And everyone could read what was written on the wall. The opposition had 67 members and the government had 36. What logic and simple arithmetic dictated was obvious. The opposition required only 53 votes in the house of 103 – not counting Ishaq Dar, who had not taken oath.

What actually happened was not so exceptional, if you are familiar with the political history of Pakistan. We have constantly been surprised by unimaginable twists in the tale and have, consequently, been conditioned to a suspension of disbelief. The author of the script always has the right to change the ending. That is why when Hasil Bizenjo died on Thursday, he was not the chairman of the Senate.

This is how I began my column that was published in this newspaper on August 6, 2019: “There surely was a touch of magic in what happened on the floor of the Senate on Thursday afternoon. There they were, 64 of them standing to be counted as signatories to a no-confidence motion against Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani. And while you watched it all on television, they shrank to exactly 50 in a very short time.

“So how did this happen? We know how magicians play their disappearance trick. Now you see them, now you don’t. But those are illusions that can later be explained. For that matter, the trick applied in the Senate must also be known to those who acted behind the curtain of ‘secret’ balloting. However, this spectacle was not meant to entertain an audience. The country has watched it with a sense of awe and foreboding”.

And that was one episode in an unending serial.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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